Now that’s what I call an athlete

Usain Bolt may be in town, but we’ve seen better before. John Russell tells the forgotten tale of the greatest runner Birmingham has ever known.

Alfred Shrubb was possibly the greatest sportsman ever to grace any venue in Birmingham.  His talents lay not in the ability to kick hell out of a pig’s bladder or punch hell out of another man, but in his ability to run around in circles, pure and simple.

He made his first appearance here, at Villa Park, on 22nd August 1903 as part of an athletics meeting billed as Birmingham v London but in reality Birchfield Harriers v South London Harriers. The two clubs had not competed against each other for over twenty years. Although Birchfield were the National Cross Country champions the result on the track was expected to be a forgone conclusion in favour of the visitors – and proved so.

But the vast crowd was not so much in attendance to see the locals perform; they were there there to see the top billing, Alfred Shrubb, the athletics sensation of the age. In the same way, many years later I and thousands of others turned up at the Alexander Stadium (now the greyhound track) in Perry Barr to see the great Australian, Herb Elliot, run a mile in four minutes. Nowadays the wimps don’t even run a mile – 1,500 metres is no distance at all.

But then neither were some of the distances at which Alfred Shrubb came to hold the world record. He came to Birmingham to try to emulate Walter George, a true blue Brummie who was the first great English runner and a regular performer at the old Aston Lower Grounds. The race was to be held over one and a half miles, and the record to beat six minutes 51 seconds. Albert failed by 2.2 seconds, but, undaunted, then took part in a three mile race in which he lapped the second place runner. The crowd roared.

Later Shrubb beat Smith the national four mile champion in a three mile invitation race at Villa Park, then as agreed, Shrubb continued in a solo attempt to beat the four mile record which he did so by 17 seconds in a time of 20 min 51 secs. Not fast by modern standards, but nothing short of sensational 110 years ago.

In two years, 1903–1904, Shrubb held all the world records from 1,000 yards to 11 miles plus the one hour record.

An extraordinary man who deigned to run in Aston and yet as far as I know his feats have never been mentioned in any Villa programme, nor anywhere else in Birmingham sporting records. But there may be a more sinister reason for his omission from the great pantheon of Villa Park heroes – or national sporting heroes for that matter.  For Albert committed the cardinal sin of the amateur code. He accepted appearance money and so was deemed a professional back in the days when such a word was dirty in then purified world of athletics. And so he went to seek fame amongst the monied classes of North America.

With thanks to ‘The Little Wonder’ by Rob Hadgraft.